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Compost Tea Brew for Seedlings

Some of you are pros, literally, at making teas, others of us have never done it before, but interested.

Why? Why make teas at all? Isn’t good soil enough? If you are just making compost tea, with compost you are already using in your garden, you may not notice much results. Every time you water, aren’t you making compost tea in place anyway?! But if you make a more diverse tea, with a lot of different ingredients, and it is made just right producing a lot of microbes, you are likely to get superb results! Research shows foliar feeding is more effective than soil drenching.

A lot of summer plants are what are called ‘heavy feeders.’ They are doing business 24/7 for several months using that soil right where they are at. They can’t go walkabout seeking new soil. Plants that produce leaf crops, lettuces, chard, kale, are using up soil nutrients just as fast as they can! Plants that produce a lot of crop, tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, are feeding a big plant, foliage and fruits! Teas are a microbial inoculant that gives them a boost from leaf to root!

Teas offer increased nutrient availability!

Teas are a high grade fertilizer full of nutrients and minerals! The tea’s chelated micronutrients are easy for plants to absorb. The teas will never burn your plants. You can easily make them yourself from your own materials. You know exactly what’s in it. No chemicals, and they don’t add salt that commercial fertilizers can add to your soil. DIY! Save money!

Marvelously, tea microbes degrade toxic pesticides and other chemicals! Much better for beneficial insects, wildlife, plants, soil and humans. Your soil will come alive again as the organisms start thriving. Your soil will have greater water holding capacity, a resiliency, the aeration it needs from burrowing soil creatures.

Nutrients! Black liquid gold can feed your plants through their roots and their leaves. The beneficial microbes are fast acting and quickly absorbed. This whole plant treatment increases plant growth – more and bigger blooms, bigger size fruits and yields. The microbes produce plant growth hormones; mineralize a plant’s available nutrients, and fix nitrogen in the plant for optimal use.

Suppress diseases! When plant surfaces are occupied by beneficial microbes, there simply is no room for pathogens! The plant will suffer little or no blight, mold, fungus or wilt! That’s a huge claim! But even if it doesn’t entirely work, your plant will likely have a much improved existence for a longer period of time. Beneficial microbes compete with disease causing microbes. Go tigers! The live microbes enhance your soil and in turn, up the immune system of your plants. Your plants are healthier, more stress-tolerant.

Communi-Tea Make your own Compost Tea!

Making teas is fairly new, but is here to stay! Nowadays we know more about microbe power, soil and plant structures and processes. Researchers have determined exacting and scientific ways to brew teas, brewing equipment is available at garden centers or on the internet. Some garden centers are brewing in large batches so customers can conveniently draw-off what they need by the gallon!

There are many tea making methods, from the simplest home bucket method to technical and elaborate brewers with plenty of debate over different ways. Aerobic brewed teas have much higher microbe population densities than extracted teas and for this reason are the teas of choice. A good head of foam and scum on top signifies healthy microbe action! Try out different methods for yourself if you have the time and the gear, and love researching. Whichever you choose, your plants will benefit!

TEA MAKING TIPS

Clean 5 Gallon container or a size that suits your needs

The right water! Rain water is best or let it sit out overnight to allow chemicals to dissipate, or bubble water through an aerator for a minimum of 20 minutes. The chlorine will be released as a gas. Or, add a small amount of powdered ascorbic acid (vitamin C) or humic acids. If you start with chlorinated water it will kill some of your microbes before you get started.

Temp matters. The microbes we want are the most happy at about 75 F, a comfy room temp for us too. Put your brew out of direct sunlight.

Compost Tea Bucket Straining Painter's Mesh BagStraining your Tea! There’s various thinking on how to strain your tea.

The easiest and simplest is to use a sock, cheesecloth bag, but let the sock be big enough to allow the ingredients you put in it room to move around as it is swished through the water. Clearly those will not accommodate a third of a 5 gallon bucket’s worth of compost plus whatever else you put in. If you will be foliar spraying your tea, sock or pillowcase fibers are too tight to allow the good fungi and nematodes to flow through.

So! Super easy but has a small price, is a painter’s bag, 400 microns, 5 gallon size (they come in different sizes). Perfect! You put it in the container you will use, the elastic top fits over the top of the bucket. When the tea is done you simply lift it out. It has a durable nylon mesh and can be used several times. Add your leftover solids to your compost pile or as a soil topper mulch. Rinse out and dry your bag ASAP.

Or if you already started your brew, just get a 400 micron mesh strainer that fits your bucket, put it over a second bucket, and pour your mix through.

INGREDIENTS! Microbial diversity!

Add Compost

CAUTIONS Unfinished compost or uncomposted manures may contain harmful pathogens and compost that is too old may be nutritionally deficient. COMPOST TEA and MANURE TEA ARE NOT THE SAME THING! Manure teas may be made the same way but are not generally recommended as foliar sprays for veggies and are not as nutritionally well-balanced.

Use well-aged, finished compost The best is good smelling, very dark, broken-down into minute particles like course cornmeal. Dig deep down inside your bin, near the bottom. This is where organic material will be most decomposed and fresh, teeming with life. All you need is a good shovelful or two, maybe a third of the bucket, for a 5-gallon bucket of compost tea.

Add Manure

Cow manure is better than steer manure if you can get it. Chicken manure is good. Less of it does more. Be careful of free horse manure. It can be salty, and if the horses ate pesticide sprayed hay, or the stalls have been sprayed to repel flies, you’ve got toxins. All manures need to be very well composted, except bunny poo, which you can sometimes get free at shelters. Bird guanos do different things. See more soil tips and about quanos. 1 cup of manure may be quite enough.

Add Worm Castings! 

In nature, worms are a natural part of soil. In addition to soil nutrients, it’s smart to add worm castings. They speed germination of your seeds, seedlings grow faster. Worm castings help your plant’s immune system, and you have measurably more produce! Plants like strawberries, that tend to attract fungal spores will also benefit. Castings contain anti-fungal chemicals that help kill the spores of black spot and powdery mildew! Growing your own worms and harvesting vibrant fresh castings is ideal, but if you don’t have time, simply buy the best organic castings you can get, fresh and local if possible! More about growing worms! Add 2 cups to your 5 gal bucket.

Compost Tea Seaweed & Herbs - Borage Nettle Comfrey Brew

Seaweed and herbs – Nettles, Comfrey and Borage Tea at Milkwood Permaculture Blog

You can add all kinds of supplements at the same time! Put compost, manure/fish emulsion, worm castings, pond muck, powdered seaweed – 2 tablespoons kelp powder, 2-3 crushed Aspirin, rock dust, chopped nutritious comfrey/borage/tansy leaves all in a bucket together – adding one volume of compost to 4-10 volumes of water. Let them sit overnight, a couple of days, stir a couple times, when you think of it. This turns the tea into a balanced organic fertilizer.

Compost Tea Bottle ComfreyComfrey, a dynamic accumulator, is especially nutritious! Having as much as a 20-30 feet deep root system, it bring minerals and trace nutrients up into its leaves that are unavailable to other plants. It is also the only plant that contains a form of vitamin B12. Mash it in a mortar & pestle, or use a big stone to break it down. That makes it easier to stuff into a stocking or 400 micron mesh bag, and speeds decomposition. Put comfrey in loosely, not too firmly, so the water can circulate around it. Even add a bit of healthy soil! You can make just a comfrey tea alone if that suits your needs. More about comfrey at Nantahala Farm & Garden

How long does it take? Add Sugar or Molasses! Aeration!

It has been shown that adding a simple aquarium pump to the bucket and letting it run to percolate the mixture will increase the potency of the finished mixture, and can be completed in as little as 12 hours to 2 days. If you want a super concentrate, let it brew a week, or more!

Recent research indicates that using some kind of aeration and adding a sugar source (unsulphured molasses works well) results in an excellent product that extracts the maximum number of beneficial organisms. 2 Tablespoons of unsulphured Molasses is good. An aerobic environment favors the aerobic microbes, physically pulls them off the compost and supplies air they need to multiply. This aeration is crucial to the formation of beneficial bacteria and the required fermentation process. It increases the absorption of the water and organisms. For the bucket-brewing method, you must stir the tea a few times during those hours or days it is brewing to aerate it. If you go over the time needed, you need to add more food for the microbes (sugar/molasses), and probably a little more compost.

Caution! Commenter Suburban Hobby Farmer on a compost tea post says: I’ve also read a study from a university extension service that says you shouldn’t use compost tea on indoor seedlings –especially if it has molasses —  because of increased damping off. According to the study, this is true even when watering from the bottom. A 2004 study says a more successful brew intended for seedlings has sufficient aeration, cuts back on the molasses, uses humic acid and kelp additives.

Keep watch that your tea hasn’t gone anaerobic. Your tea should always have an “earthy” odor. If it smells bad, throw away the tea and don’t put it on your garden soil or compost pile.

Wash Your Gear Immediately! Bio-slimes build up inside your brewer or in your 5 gallon bucket. In a brewer this means walls, tubes, small crevices at the bottom. The pressure of hose water isn’t enough to remove it. It may take elbow grease, 3% hydrogen peroxide or a solution of 5% baking soda.

Here I’ve added a few notes to Shelle’s Quickie Recipe and instructions:

  1. 2 cups worm castings [or your choice of ingredients]
  2. 2 tablespoons corn syrup or unsulphured molasses. Molasses feeds the bacterial growth in the brew and also contributes trace elements of iron, manganese, copper and potassium.
  3. 5 gallon bucket
  4. Old pantyhose (no holes), a bag if you are doing soil drenching. Manure tea not recommended for foliar application.
  5. Water (rainwater is best or let it sit out overnight to allow chemicals to dissipate)
  • Put the castings (etc) in the sock and tie it closed
  • Submerge the stocking in water
  • Add the corn syrup and soak for 24 hours, stirring every few hours. Your mix should never be stinky. Like good compost, it should smell earthy.
  • Dilute to a 3 to 1 ratio, use within 48 hours

How long will my tea last? It is best to apply your compost tea immediately; however, it can still produce benefits if applied within 4-6 hours of removing the oxygen source if you are aerating. Remember we are talking about living organisms, trying to keep them in optimum health!

Applying your finished tea!

Will you use it as a soil drench or a foliar application? BOTH!

If using it as a soil drench, dilute or apply it full strength. If your tea is good, you really can’t overdo it! And you don’t need to strain it. But for young, delicate or houseplants try it diluted first. Amazingly, only 5 gallons of compost tea can be diluted to cover approximately one acre of land, and still produce benefits!

Tea to be used as a foliar application you must strain. Use a 400 micrometer mesh or screen. The mesh is big enough to allow the fungi and nematodes to flow through it, while trapping larger particulate matter that will eventually clog your sprayer.

Make sure that the sprayer you are using is designed for compost tea. Many sprayers apply with too much pressure, kill the microbes before they even make it to the plant surface. You need 70 pounds psi or less. Use a smooth, slightly-curved nozzle. With 90 degree bends in the nozzle, the microbes can be damaged. Try to arc or parachute, your application onto the leaves so the microbes land more gently, not head on.

Foliar Feeding - Rose Upturned to Moisten Undersides of LeavesApply with a watering can or a simple garden sprayer. Soak the soil to the dripline. When foliar feeding, be sure to add 1/8 to 1/2 tsp vegetable oil or mild dish-washing liquid per gallon to help it adhere to leaves. Use a watering can with a head that rotates so you can spray both on and under leaves. Minerals and nutrients are absorbed through the leaves and the roots – the WHOLE plant! Apply early in the day, avoid applying in direct sunlight. Ultraviolet (UV) rays kill microbes. If you must apply during sunlight time, do it before 10 am or after 3 pm, when UV rays are weakest.

If you do soil drenching, once you apply it, keep it moist for a few days to a week so the microorganisms have time to settle in, strengthen and multiply! Space out your applications a bit to give them time to get results. If you need a little more mojo deeper in your soil, down where the roots are, use your spade fork, the kind with the short wide tines that are spaced about two inches apart. Push your fork all the way into the soil, wiggle it back and forth to make holes, lift it straight up back out. Pour in your tea. Close the holes. Water a bit the next few days so your soil stays moist below and the organisms can thrive. Your plants will thrive as the root zone is so kindly treated!

When, How often?

Why wait until your plants are in the ground to add teas?! Start feeding your soil soonest! If you have your plant placements in mind, be sure to invest your teas out to the anticipated dripline so feeder roots will get some.

Make your tea applications every two weeks until your plants start to bud. We want our plants to make fruit, not foliage then! Some suggest to apply your tea at least four times per year, 1x spring, 2x summer, 1x fall. If you are trying to overcome disease, you may need to apply compost tea every five to seven days. If your soils have ever been sprayed with pesticides or otherwise compromised, apply more often.

Teas are perfect for container gardens, right?! You can buy ready made tea bags. You can buy Tea! No digging, just feeding.

Some tea making techniques are purposely biased toward bacterial, fungal or neutral predominance. It is speculated that one day we can selectively make teas focused to prevent/heal certain plant diseases or upset pest cycles, preventing infestations, and we are already making super teas to inoculate specific crops for super health and production. Eric in Denver says: ‘Now is our chance to get in on the ground floor of this exciting new science. Get a microscope (400x), learn to identify the main types of soil organisms, refine your brewing techniques, and set aside a place in your garden for experiments. It sounds much harder than it actually is, and there is plenty of work to be done.’

As of early 2011, there was very little evidence that proved the benefits of aerated compost teas; non-aerated teas seemed to fare a little better. That’s similar results as whether to turn compost or not. Turned compost processes faster, but unturned compost is higher in nitrogen! In the Journal of Plant Pathology 2015, Effect of Aerated Compost Tea on the Growth Promotion of Lettuce, Soybean, and Sweet Corn in Organic Cultivation, four types of compost were brewed and then the available nitrogen was determined, as well as the density of microbial communities, along with their effect on plant growth characteristics. Across the board it was shown that aerating compost tea released more nutrients, increased microbial counts, and helped plants grow!

Some practical points: When your tea hits the dirt, the water near the surface remains aerobic sustaining the aerobic species in the tea, and the water that soaks deeper becomes anaerobic sustaining those species. In other words, the soil microbe stratification remains the same as nature makes it. If you apply tea to your soil, made with the same compost you grow with, you are making extra work for yourself! But if you add biodiverse amendments to your tea, it supplies an array of tasty ingredients your compost likely doesn’t have. Compost supplies the organic matter that tea doesn’t supply, so it is critical in and of itself, plus it has many times more nutrients than a diluted tea. But teas are great for potted plants and lawns! And if you foliar feed your veggie plants, the uptake is greater and works within an hour!!! So think through why and how you will use teas and make them accordingly!

Here’s to a blessed summer of happy plants and abundant harvests!

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The Green Bean Connection started as correspondence for the Santa Barbara CA USA Pilgrim Terrace Community Garden. All three of Santa Barbara’s community gardens are very coastal. During late spring/summer we are often in a fog belt/marine layer most years, locally referred to as the May grays, June glooms and August fogusts. Keep that in mind compared to the microclimate niche where your veggie garden is. Bless you for being such a wonderful Earth Steward!

Love your Mother! Plant bird & bee food! Think grey water! Grow organic!

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